Boaters convince Kirkland to sink "rafting" regulations


The Kirkland City Council got more than they wanted when they asked city staff to produce a plan to deal with noisy boaters disturbing lake-front residents. The resulting plan, in development since September 2011, not only set fines for noisemakers but went so far as to prescribe the number of boats which could actually be tied up together. This restriction on what is called "rafting" was a step too far for many Kirkland citizens. When the Kirkland City Council met on Tuesday night to address the issue of watercraft regulations, they found a packed house of passionate boaters and non-boaters alike.

Any three (or more) motorized watercraft drifting or anchored within 25 feet of each other for the purpose of having a party or rafting-like social exchange shall be [prohibited]. - from the proposed watercraft ordinance

After hearing testimony from the audience (only three persons are allowed to speak on either side of an issue as per Kirkland City Council rules for public participation during meetings) and a presentation from staff, the Kirkland City Council decided not to impose the planned restrictions. Councilmember Penny Sweet offered a motion to send the plan back to the Council's Public Safety Committee for revision. The motion was seconded by Councilmember Dave Asher and it passed unanimously.

The Council did the right thing by listening to the wisdom and common sense of their constituents on Tuesday. Somehow wisdom and common sense had not made it into the process until it was almost too late.

What this episode demonstrates is not only how much power concerned citizens have over the process, but it clearly shows us how government action to solve a problem can have unintended consequences.

This was a learning moment for the City of Kirkland. Let us hope that lessons can be learned. Here are a few lessons I took from witnessing this process:

Lesson One: Be careful what you ask for from government. You just might get it (and much, much more).

The Council asked staff to develop a plan to address concerns from lake-front homeowners about excessive boater noise.

They got a plan to not only apply the current vehicle noise disturbance ordinance to watercraft, they also got a plan to ban how many boaters may tie up together within the city limits! How did this happen?

The tying up of boats is called "rafting" and it primarily takes place in Juanita Bay during the summer months.

Staff went out to nearby lakes and learned how local municipalities dealt with noise issues, then they applied the same solution to Kirkland. The problem with the resultant plan is that the included verbiage was so restrictive and controlling of private citizens activities that even non-boaters (this author included) were up in arms. The rafting restriction plan was overkill, overreach and went far beyond the stated goal of dealing with noise complaints. Water safety became a part of the plan and rafting of three (or more) boats was considered to be dangerous.

To many Kirklanders, the rafting restrictions were the epitome of the nanny state run amok as reflected in the comments on these pages.

Lesson Two: The City Council responds to citizen outcry.

The large number of phone calls, emails, online comments and people filling council chambers to oppose Kirkland's planned watercraft restrictions certainly moved the Council to rethink their plan. Citizen involvement works. The problem is, most issues aren't flash points like the boating noise ordinance. The typical Kirkland City Council meeting is rather boring to most folks who can find better things to do on a Tuesday night than camp out at City Hall. The reality is that few citizens give input on the most of the myriad of issues before the City Council.

Lesson Three: Stay vigilant. Stay engaged.

To those of us with a healthy skepticism of government, this episode shows that if left to their own devices, government has a tendency to overreach and cast a broad net when addressing issues. Sometimes, the unintended consequences of government action are almost as bad as the ill they were intended to address.

This is not a result of maliciousness on the part of city staff. It is merely the natural outcome of the process by which the City of Kirkland develops ordinances. There was not enough public vetting of this plan. Many on the Council had not seen the plan until just days before it was to be voted upon. Instructions to staff were vague and the resulting staff recommendation was deeply flawed.

Only when citizens created an uproar did many on the Council learn what was actually in the planned watercraft regulations. Many on the council had not known what rafting was until citizens explained the long-held tradition on Juanita Bay. Our current system of developing regulations in Kirkland is not serving us well.

The black eye Kirkland received from this episode should be proof enough that something needs to change.

Is this the first time that the ordinances produced by staff have not reflected the will of the citizens? No. How often has government overreached with sweeping regulations that don't reach the front page (or in this case, the homepage)? Our Council and we the citizens need to be more engaged in the process of how our laws and regulations are written. We need to provide input early in the process. Everyone needs oversight from time to time. Even the product of the best intentions can be flawed simply because an outside perspective had not been sought.

Let us learn from this incident. Let us not find ourselves again scrambling to stop regulations with unintended consequences.

Let us be mindful that a government that has the power to do good also has the power to harm.